We are slaves and we are happy

We use glowing tones and terms when we talk about a lot of professions. But is it all that good?
Or is there a (self) imposed vision behind these terms?

If work is “cool” – fun, smart, social – what happens to our free time? And most importantly, how much of it do we actually have?

I chose the words “smart” and “social” deliberately as they are the perfect examples of a new linguistic trend hiding a way of thinking which is often lacking perspective. They are horizontal terms, the orphans of verticality, false linguistic principles, given that in the original language they have other meanings, which are much deeper, heterogeneous and nuanced. What are they then? They are simple labels. We need labels to help us: we attach the label “salt” on a jar of salt, but nothing tells us that there is actually salt inside it, often it is sugar, and vice versa. Similarly, we define certain forms of work as cool or smart, but no concrete proof of it is offered in exchange.

The only data in our possession shows a different reality: numbers from the World Health Organization and major research in the field describe a constant increase in psychological suffering and in particular of neuroses, primarily anxiety and depression, with worrying peaks expected in the years to come, so much so that these types of disturbances will exceed cardiovascular diseases in number. Smart? According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, by 2020 stress will become the first cause of absenteeism in the workplace. Social?

What we have here is not about the usual pitting of apocalyptic against integrated views, between technology and innovation enthusiasts on one side and the sentimental and the old-timers on the other. It’s about thinking, sometimes touching, tasting, smelling, not losing feeling through our body, which is perhaps the best comfort for the soul.

There is too much unquestioning faith around. I do not believe that work is smart only because it was defined as such by a marketing office, advertising agency, guru or market research. In a recent public meeting I heard an important influencer seduce the audience with similar labels. Words were being bandied about like smart, social, multitasking, business moment, connectivity… I wondered if his speech would have stood up to the ancient and childlike Socratic system of argument: what does this mean and what does that mean, define A and define B. Only one person in the audience candidly admitted they didn’t understand much, and asked him to explain again. The influencer repeated the same notions, changing only the word order and in an even more enthusiastic tone.

The key is precisely enthusiasm that – as etymology goes – reveals a possession. We are possessed by the demon of innovation for the sake of innovation.

The most concerning thing is that we have learned a small lesson by heart, blindly accepting some advertising messages that we no longer recognise as having the same meaning. “The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf”, wrote Marshall McLuhan, someone who had understood everything, but had understood it too soon. Now we can’t even talk about hidden persuaders anymore: it is all in the open.

What is no longer all in the open is work, which covers the twenty-four hours of the earth’s rotation. The fight for the forty-hour work week – or even thirty-five – belongs to the Neolithic age. When we hear that seasons are not what they used to be, we smile with an air of condescension, but the truth is that days are not what they used to be. The day has been swept away by the new socio-economic system. The boundary between work and free time has faded so much that it has disappeared. Time no longer exists. What exists is only many moments. The famous influencer spoke about business moments. Every moment is a business moment. All of these moments replace one another without interruption, they no longer weave a plotline: there are no intervals, thresholds, passing moments. But the loss of time brings us to a loss of identity. Without time there is no history, without history we do not exist.

Every minute therefore becomes an opportunity to be exploited. Optimise, achieve, increase: a whole series of fashionable verbs that belong to the specific category of performance, to use another word-label. Life becomes a performance. The dematerialisation of work has done nothing but make it permanent.

“In post-Fordism the assembly line becomes a ‘flux of information’, people work by communicating. As Norbert Wiener taught, communication and control entail one another. Work and life become inseparable”, wrote the late Mark Fisher.

“Time stops being linear and becomes chaotic, point-like. The nervous system is restructured just as production and distribution chains. To function as just-in-time production system, you have to know how to react to the unexpected and learn to cope with absolute instability. “

And this is where the human-system breaks down. Work does not just demand our time, but also our soul. “Creativity and self-expression have become intrinsic to labour in Control societies; which now makes affective, as well as productive demands, on workers”, added Fisher.

We have to work all the time and we must do it joyfully. Client and worker satisfaction is just another product in the chain. It is no coincidence that employee happiness surveys in large companies are constantly commissioned, especially in the hi-tech sector. Beyond the results of surveys, average company retention times are decreasing while the phenomenon of job hoppingi.e. the almost compulsive change of job – is growing. This desire comes from both the wish to increase earnings and latent and inextinguishable dissatisfaction: work becomes an end in itself and knows no end.

Work always, work joyfully, work even for free. Nobody wants to slave away without being paid, yet it is what we do every day, and for many hours. We work continuously for the big web companies. “We are in serfdom. Digital feudal lords like Facebook give us land and say: plough it, and you can have it for free. And we plough it like crazy, this land. At the end, the feudal lords come and take the harvest. This is an exploitation of communication”, writes Byung-chul Han, one of the most acute contemporary thinkers.

And our unconditional dedication to work does not end there. We often worry about privacy, but we don’t just give away our private life, we give away life itself. Flexibility has turned things upside down, and free time has become work time. We are constantly connected. But who is always connected? Machines, electrical appliances… We run the risk of not functioning if we are not connected. We fear the arrival of machines, but the machines are already here, they’re us.

Workaholic, happy, always under observation, and permanently switched on. Who can afford to “disappear”? To set aside a portion of life? To have real free time, a private life? They are considered luxuries or artefacts from the past. It is not an issue of foolishly refusing innovation or progress – despite the current ambiguity of the concept – but to preserve the divine right not to take the whole “package”. American Indians most probably appreciated the horse – and perhaps the train later – but they would have preferred to keep their land and certainly their life. Innovation is good, but not uncritically. “It is critical vision alone which can mitigate the unimpeded operation of the automatic. Change in mental habits is an impersonal, irresponsible and unconscious process which makes both the individual and the masses defenceless”, noted McLuhan.

With the pretext of a better world, what we always end up with is selling a new product. Put to the test, “better” means a better product. And so we no longer look for solutions in the personal, political, civil and social or spiritual processes, but in products. Work and leisure have been transformed into goods: we buy them, we sell them, we exploit them, we optimise them. We confuse freedom or personal fulfilment with the satisfaction of a need. What a sorry state.

Is there room for freedom in such a scenario? The freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to choose, the freedom to be able to do something and the freedom to not do something: do they actually exist? Let’s try to reason here. Can a communication agency office worker go home at 6 pm when his or her colleagues are in the office until midnight? Can he or she go out for dinner or go to the cinema, when the colleague or the competitor will be working until three in the morning to finish a project? Can an artist, writer, artisan or young professional forego promoting themselves on social media? Can a shop owner refuse to be listed on a site, a list or a ranking where anyone can judge them, despise them or give them a score? Can the shop owner refuse to be transformed into a number of stars? Can a freelancer on holiday turn down a last-minute job they can fit in between their deckchair and the pool?

The examples are endless and they show us how much our actual room for manoeuvre is dangerously confined. Refusing to adapt and taking one’s own freedoms would mean, in many cases, giving up one’s career, earnings, social standing… Who can afford to do that? Only the very rich or, on the flipside, the very poor. All the others are boxed into this system that feeds itself. If in marketing jargon “free” is at the top position of the most persuasive words, it could be because freedom is becoming a mirage.

The ancients praised otium, a moment that was unproductive, but spiritually rich: not exactly and not only “dolce far niente” (TN: sweet idleness), but an undetermined time to dedicate to activities without an immediate purpose, like reading, walking, thinking, contemplating, looking… Otium no longer exists, because all activities are not only monetisable, but productive for the person. I experience it personally: if I travel I write a report, if I read a book I review it, if I watch a movie I advertise it on social media… I monetise, I optimise, I keep the cogs turning.

A few days ago, while I was ironing, I reflected that if I had taken the shirts to the ironing place in front of my house, I would have saved time and got a better service: I could have used the time devoted to my shirts to work, thus earning more than what I paid the laundry, and I would also have helped the economy. But then I thought that during that manual activity I could have come up with some good ideas for my next book. Reassured I went on, but it didn’t take long for me to notice that this way of reasoning was also part of the problem, and not of the solution: although relieved, the perverse idea of time persisted and of oneself as a resource to be exploited. Why not just iron, without ulterior motives? A Hasidic sage claimed he had the greatest illumination of his life while washing the dishes, simply being present while washing them, without other aims.

Even ironing can then become otium, understood as a source of deep freedom and full awareness, or forgetfulness of oneself. Of course, ancient societies could afford it because they often were based on slave labour. Servants did most of the work, especially in certain historical periods. This should not be forgotten, as there has never been a golden age on Earth. However, our time has its own breed of slave society: we beautifully self-exploit ourselves. In fact, the dematerialisation allowed perpetual self-incarceration.

“Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation. This is more efficient than allo-exploitation, for the feeling of freedom attends it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim can no longer be distinguished”, writes Byung-chul Han. According to the philosopher, this excess corresponds to the spread of depression: “depression erupts at the moment when the achievement-subject is no longer able to be able, and is first and foremost creative fatigue and exhausted ability. The complaint of the depressive individual, ‘Nothing is possible’, can only occur in a society that thinks, ‘Nothing is impossible’. No-longer-being-able-to-be-able leads to destructive self-reproach and auto-aggression. The achievement-subject finds itself fighting with itself”.

Pascal wisely said that many of our problems arise from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Who could manage that? Who can afford to do it? At the nervous system level, hyper-attention turns into latent instability and into a state of constant alert. The latest research estimates that one out of two Italians has problems with sleep. We can’t switch off, not even when we sleep.


Davide Mosca

Davide Mosca Davide Mosca è nato a Savona e vive a Milano, dove dirige la libreria Verso. Editorialista di Riza Psicosomatica, è autore di una quindicina di libri tra romanzi e saggi.

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